Christiana Figueres: Peak emissions by 2020 ‘crazy but achievable’

Former UN climate chief Christiana Figueres remains "stubbornly optimistic" that market trends are already in place to hit ambitious three-year targets as part of her Mission 2020 campaign, but only if the "climate conversation" is extended to a wider range of stakeholders and investors.

The Mission 2020 initiative focuses on six key decarbonisation goals to “bend the curve” on global emissions and meet the scientific goals of the Paris Agreement. Speaking at the campaign launch in London on Monday (10 April), the ex-Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) claimed that current trends, matched by new investments, policies and a broadening of the conversation, could turn the ambition into reality.

“This is a call to collective intentionality, just like we had intentionality for the Paris Agreement,” Figueres said. “Now we need another wave, to make sure we don’t surpass the timeframe for being the moment in which we truly bend the curve and descend emissions.

“The Paris Agreement presented climate change to an increasing array of stakeholders because we made the effort to extend the conversation. We want to take the circumference of the Paris Agreement talks and extend it. Talking to ourselves isn’t going to get it done. We need to get across that boundary and bring other people on our side.

“Bending the curve in three to four years does seem completely crazy. But the fact is, this is achievable.”

The success of Mission 2020 hinges on key milestones, such as the ability of renewables to outperform fossil fuels by 2020. The fact that emissions have flatlined during a prolonged period of economic growth leads Figueres to believe that this target is in reach.

An infrastructure target to ensure the blueprints and policies are in place by 2020 to decarbonise projects by 2050 has, in Figueres’ opinion, been made a reality by the work of the C40 initiative, which has equipped 90 global cities with $15bn to decarbonise their footprints by 2020.

Another of the key areas is transport; specifically that all new mobility introduced is zero-emission. Figueres alluded to Tesla’s market value, which surged ahead of incumbents Ford last week, as an example of the appetite for low-emission vehicles.

A 150m acre restoration project in Latin America was cited as an example for the land-use target, but challenges remained in place for targets to mobilise investment and get the heavy industry on-board.

Figueres noted that big emitters, such as the concrete and steel industries, were “understandably” lagging behind, but urged businesses in these sectors to develop science-based targets in the 2020 timeframe.

The former Executive Secretary was joined on stage by delegates including Lord Stern and Legal & General’s head of personal investing Helena Morrissey to discuss how investment and innovation would shape these 2020 targets. Lord Stern, who’s 2005 review argued the cost of inaction in relation to climate change, revealed that he had “underestimated” the cost of inaction.

“These are investments that are enormously attractive,” Stern said. “We have to do things in a very different way, and infrastructure is at the heart of this. Investing in sustainable infrastructure now is the sensible demand boost that the world economy needs. We have to understand the magnitude of the change.”

Specialist issue

The final goal of the Mission 2020 campaign calls on investors to mobilise $1trn annually for green projects. Figueres revealed that this figure currently sat at around $300bn, although it would be strengthened by the green bonds market, set to reach $200bn in value this year.

Legal & General’s Morrissey claimed that climate change was a “financial problem” and that the success of Mission 2020 would hinge on the finance sector’s ability to view climate change in a different light.

“I believe climate change is a financial problem,” Morrissey said. “Most view it as a specialist issue and not a day-to-day subject. They’re not putting their money where their mouth is. Those that do need to outperform and show them it’s a smart choice.

“Investors can either accelerate the paths to 2020 or we can hold it up. There’s so much money invested in the companies that hold the key for whether we get there in time because they are obviously not environmentally friendly. You don’t want these companies to go bankrupt, you want them to develop new technologies to help them.”

Matt Mace

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